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Benjamin Tucker on Anarcho-Capitalism

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 17 years ago, in 2007, on the World Wide Web.

Benjamin R. Tucker

Well, kind of.

Obviously Benjamin Tucker had no direct opinions about anarcho-capitalism, because the term was not even coined until many years after his death, and several decades after his retirement from radical politics. But Tucker did have quite a bit to say about the relationships among anarchism, socialism, and capitalism, and it may be worth having a look at it.

The question’s interesting partly as a matter of historical curiosity, but partly also because it may help shed some light on an old argument which has mostly produced heat. There are certain groups of anti-capitalist anarchists — most of them communist or collectivist anarchists — who tend to start spitting fire when pro-capitalist anti-statists like Murray Rothbard or David Friedman describe themselves as anarcho-capitalists, or identify their position as a form of anarchism simpliciter, or identify anarcho-capitalism as a close relation of the free-market individualist anarchism of Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, Victor Yarros, et al. The locus classicus of the fire-spitting on the web is of course Section F and Section G of the social anarchist Anarchist FAQ; if that’s not where you’re encountering the debate, you’re almost certain to hear it get cited repeatedly anyway. At this point a heated debate soon follows over whether anarcho-capitalism is a genuine form of anarchism, or an unrelated form of right-wing anti-statism being fraudulently passed off as anarchism. The debate often focuses in on the notion of an anarchist tradition, and the argument turns to the question of (1) whether a pro-capitalist position is or is not incompatible with essential and continuous elements of that tradition; and (2) whether anarcho-capitalism is a legitimate part of that tradition or an independent and basically alien ideology that has just nicked some terminology and a couple slogans from traditional anarchism. And this is where the individualist anarchists get dragged into the fight.

Social anarchists and anarcho-capitalists spend quite a bit of time fighting with each other over who gets to claim the individualist anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th century. The anarcho-capitalists point out the Liberty circle’s relentless emphasis on free markets, free competition, individually-held property, and opposition to communism. The social anarchists point out Tucker et al.’s self-identification as socialists, their relentless explicit attacks on the capitalist and landlord classes, their identification with nonviolent forms of labor militancy, and their analysis of interest on loans, rent on land, profits from the hiring out of capital, etc. as the creatures of state-fabricated privileges to the propertied classes. I don’t want to get too deep into these exegetical arguments right now; I’ve already discussed some of the semantic difficulties involved elsewhere (1, 2, 3, etc.), and Roderick has a couple of excellent posts on the topic at Austro-Athenian Empire (2007-04-01): Against Anarchist Apartheid and more recently Austro-Athenian Empire (2007-11-11): Voltairine de Cleyre, Anarcho-capitalist? For now, suffice it to say that both sides of the argument are substantially right, and substantially wrong; many anarcho-capitalists have been maddeningly selective, and substantially distorted the individualists in order to obscure or neglect the socialistic bite of the individualist understanding of class, privilege, and exploitation. But the social anarchists have also cut a lot of corners in explaining the individualists’ positions, which mostly serve to make Tucker, Spooner, Yarros, de Cleyre, etc. seem much more monolithic than they actually were, and to make them seem significantly less propertarian, and more friendly towards collectivistic and communistic socialism, than they actually were. Meanwhile the social anarchists’ reconstruction of anarcho-capitalist theory is so ferociously uncharitable, and so far out of touch with the versions of anarcho-capitalism espoused by central figures such as Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard in the period of Left and Right and Libertarian Forum, that frankly they ought to be embarrassed to show it in public.

In any case, since I am myself an individualist anarchist, and not an anarcho-capitalist or a social anarchist, I don’t have much of a dog in the fight, except insofar as it gets a bit tiresome watching the two bicker over the individualist tendency within the movement as if they were arguing over the contents of their dead grandmother’s will. We are still about and hardly need a bunch of anarcho-capitalists and social anarchists to do the talking for us. But setting aside most of the exegetical argument, there are a couple of claims that social anarchists routinely make about the anarchist tradition that need some closer scrutiny.

First, social anarchists claim that a no-government position is necessary but not sufficient for genuine anarchism; second, they claim that traditionally anarchists have understood anarchism to demand not only the abolition of the State as such, but also opposition to capitalism, in some fairly robust sense, and that the anti-capitalist position is as essential to all genuine traditional anarchism as the anti-statist position. Hence the amount of ink spilled in order to demonstrate that Benjamin Tucker did, indeed, call himself an anarchistic socialist, that the individualists did indeed believe that wage workers were systemically exploited by employers, that they did support squatters over absentee landlords, and that the economic predominance of capitalists, landlords, and money barons in the marketplace was a creature of government privilege, which would collapse on a genuinely free market. (It’s actually not at all clear to me how this position is supposed to be radically different from Karl Hess’s position, or Rothbard’s position in Confiscation and the Homestead Principle. But whatever.) It is certainly true that Tucker and his comrades considered themselves socialists as well as individualists, and that they considered their socialism very important to their position. But did these traditional anarchists actually agree with contemporary social anarchists’ interpretive claims about the meaning of the term anarchism, or the essential features of the anarchist tradition?

Roderick recently put up a good post about the attitude of Voltairine de Cleyre, during her earlier individualist anarchist phase. (De Cleyre later changed her position in a way that she understood as a rejection of individualist anarchism, and which social anarchists often claim was a conversion to anarcho-communism. But in fact her later position was more of an economic panarchy in which individualist and communist communities could coexist.) Now, here’s Tucker, in an column that he first penned for Liberty in 1890, and then reprinted in Instead of a Book. Tucker was responding to an explicit attempt to give definitions of socialism and anarchism in Hugh Pentecost’s radical paper, the Twentieth Century. The boldface is mine.

Take now another Twentieth Century definition,—that of Anarchism. I have not the number of the paper in which it was given, and cannot quote it exactly. But it certainly made belief in co-operation an essential of Anarchism. This is as erroneous as the definition of Socialism. Co-operation is no more an essential of Anarchism than force is of Socialism. The fact that the majority of Anarchists believe in co-operation is not what makes them Anarchists, just as the fact that the majority of Socialists believe in force is not what makes them Socialists. Socialism is neither for nor against liberty; Anarchism is for liberty, and neither for nor against anything else. Anarchy is the mother of co-operation,—yes, just as liberty is the mother of order; but, as a matter of definition, liberty is not order nor is Anarchism co-operation.

I define Anarchism as the belief in the greatest amount of liberty compatible with equality of liberty; or, in other words, as the belief in every liberty except the liberty to invade.

It will be observed that, according to the Twentieth Century definitions, Socialism excludes Anarchists, while, according to Liberty's definitions, a Socialist may or may not be an Anarchist, and an Anarchist may or may not be a Socialist. Relaxing scientific exactness, it may be said, briefly and broadly, that Socialism is a battle with usury and that Anarchism is a battle with authority. The two armies—Socialism and Anarchism—are neither coextensive nor exclusive; but they overlap. The right wing of one is the left wing of the other. The virtue and superiority of the Anarchistic Socialist—or Socialistic Anarchist, as he may prefer to call himself—lies in the fact that he fights in the wing that is common to both. Of course there is a sense in which every Anarchist may be said to be a Socialist virtually, inasmuch as usury rests on authority, and to destroy the latter is to destroy the former. But it scarcely seems proper to give the name Socialist to one who is such unconsciously, neither desiring, intending, nor knowing it.

— Benjamin Tucker, Armies that Overlap, Instead of a Book. ¶Â¶ 10–12.

Tucker was famously strict in applying the term anarchist — he argued that professedly anti-statist communists such as Johann Most or the Haymarket martyrs were not in fact anarchists, but only governmentalists of a different stripe who had illegitimately appropriated the term from the proponents of individual property and free markets. So it’s interesting to note that here, while Tucker places himself in the socialist camp, he is explicitly willing to grant the name anarchist to those who oppose the state even if they reject socialism and accept or support capitalistic usury; it would seem that Tucker would have accepted anarcho-capitalism, but not many forms of social anarchism, as legitimately anarchistic. If it were the 19th century individualists who were separating the sheep from the goats, instead of having a bunch of latter-day social anarchists swoop in putatively to do it on their behalf and save them from the evil schemes of the an-caps, then you’d get a very different line-up for the anarchist tradition; of the two Murrays, Rothbard would probably be in, and Bookchin would probably be out.

Now, that’s an interesting result. Not because of the fact that Tucker must be right about this; just because Tucker used the word one way doesn’t mean that everyone did then, or that everyone has to now. After all, I certainly don’t have any problem with referring to Most or Albert Parsons or Kropotkin as an anarchist, even though I think that there are key points on which Tucker is right and they are wrong. But I do think that it’s important, if you’re going to go appeal to the anarchist tradition, to make sure that the claims you’re making about continuity and essential features are supported by how those traditional anarchists saw themselves, and not just a projection of your own priorities and your own ideas about what’s essential onto your predecessors. Given what Tucker, for one, actually said about what he understood anarchism to mean, and who he would or would not recognize as a fellow anarchist, I don’t think that the the social anarchist polemics have done a very good job of that, as far as the Liberty individualists are concerned.

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  1. labyrus

    When you get down to it, it’s mostly a historical argument about where the term “anarchist” comes from in a movement sense.

    Most anarcho-capitalists go with Proudhon as the originator of the term and more or less accept it as it was used by intellectuals like him and Tucker. Social Anarchists usually agknowledge that while these intellectuals did use the term, Anarchism as a social movement didn’t really exist until Bakunin’s faction in the first International made it a movement. Since there’s pretty much no way you can call the International Workingmen’s Association “not socialist”, to them, the Anarchist tradition stems from Bakunin. After that there was a few splits in the Paris community of anarchists.

    As far as I can tell both sides have a point. Benjamin Tucker had real ideas worth considering, and just because he didn’t really put them to work politically all that much doesn’t make him any less of an anarchist.

    On the other hand, Social Anarchists can claim a more or less continuous history as a social movement (not so much in the Americas, where most of our historical experience with Anarchism is of a decidedly syndicalist variety which waters down a lot of the anti-government rhetoric to “the workers know no country or flag”, but in Spain, Italy and France, as well continuing to exist as an underground oppositional movement in East Germany and the Balkans under communist rule), while most of the contemporary anarcho-capitalist movement really goes back to a fairly recent past of libertarians rediscovering a lot of anarcho-capitalist ideas and really not creating any kind of solid political formation out of them(largely because of, as I understand it, Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard).

  2. Rad Geek


    Those are all fair points, but I think that the picture needs some complicating.

    Social Anarchists usually agknowledge that while these intellectuals did use the term, Anarchism as a social movement didn’t really exist until Bakunin’s faction in the first International made it a movement.

    Yeah, but I think that that claim is something of a self-serving oversimplification by the part of the social anarchists. There was a lot more activism going on among American individualist anarchists, to take one example, than just putting out Liberty. Jo Labadie and Dyer Lum were directly involved in radical labor organizing, and Josiah Warren, Stephen Pearl Andrews, William B. Greene, Joshua King Ingalls, Ezra and Angela Heywood, and Josiah Warren were all involved in the First International (!) early on, before the Woodhull-Andrews faction was purged through the personal efforts of Karl Marx.

    Besides involvement with the broader radical Left, there were also plenty of examples of autonomous individualist social activism, at least in North America. (I know rather less about the Proudhonistes in Europe.) Much of it focused on co-operatives and intentional communities, in the vein of Josiah Warren’s numerous projects. Tucker himself was not especially enthusiastic about that sort of thing, and for that matter neither am I, but Tucker was hardly the only individualist in America, and wishing the individualists had adopted more effectual forms action in their social movement is not the same thing as denying that they had a social movement at all.

    On the other hand, Social Anarchists can claim a more or less continuous history as a social movement … while most of the contemporary anarcho-capitalist movement really goes back to a fairly recent past of libertarians rediscovering a lot of anarcho-capitalist ideas and really not creating any kind of solid political formation out of them.

    Well. while this question is interesting, I honestly don’t think it should matter much or at all to the question of who does or doesn’t count as genuine members of the anarchist movement. There’s this weird idea of a sort of anarchistic apostolic succession that a lot of anarchist tradition arguments seem to invoke, but I’m not clear on what is supposed to count as a genuine continuity and what counts as a discontinuity here.

    As you mention, if we don’t count relatively recent revivals of anarchist ideas that you mostly had to read about from dead or retired anarchists, then pretty much nothing in post-World War II American anarchism counts at all, since it largely dates from a revival of anarchist ideas during the late 1960s and then again during the late 1990s, rather than from any institutional continuity with pre-New Left anarchist groups.

    And, on the other hand, anarcho-capitalist movement is less of a discontinuous revival than is commonly claimed. Early anarcho-capitalists like Murray Rothbard and Bob LeFevre — Karl Hess got into the movement a bit later — did put a lot of new emphasis on reading the individualist anarchist literature. But they had plenty of personal connection with an older generation of anarchists — Frank Chodorov and Albert Jay Nock, in particular — who bridged the generational gap between the Boston individualists and the later libertarian movement, and who were also substantially influenced by Franz Oppenheimer and Leo Tolstoy.

    As for political formations, I think the problem isn’t that the anarcho-capitalists didn’t create any solid political formation from their ideas; it’s that they invested too much energy in the wrong political formation (viz. the Libertarian Party). But that’s hardly the first or the only time that anarchists frittered away their energy on political fronts with statists.

    This is not to deny that there aren’t some real and important differences. But sometimes the differences are merely apparent, and when not merely apparent, they are much more often differences of degree rather than differences in kind.

  3. Mike Erwin

    In my experience, most other anticapitalist anarchists count at least two origins of the anarchism as a tradition, with Godwin and with Proudhon; and may also count with one or more of Warren, the Autonomous Marxists, or others. Some regard Proudhon as a proto-anarchist, writing from the tradition as it formed, and Bakunin as an early true anarchist, writing from the tradition as it developed and grew more and more critical of the state.

    As long as capitalism refers to a system of rule, anarcho-capitalism is as much an oxymoron as anarcho-feudalism would be. The key questions are when capitalism involves rule, and whether capitalism requires rule, e.g. “A boss is a ruler because the workers don’t free choices about whether to work for bosses or not.” and “Capitalism requires a state to defend capitalist property. AC requires statelike PDAs to defend capitalist property.” (Not surprisingly, there is some debate whether Tucker’s proposal is anarchist: are Tucker’s PDAs qualitatively different from Rothbard’s PDAs? Are their functions completely different?)

  4. labyrus

    I should perhaps have made my own position clear – I find the argument somewhat interesting but I’m perfectly willing to agknowledge actual anarcho-capitalists as anarchists. I think we social anarchists could learn a lot from them and in a lot of ways I wish it was easier for people to see them as just another “flavour” of anarchism along with anarcho-syndicalism, Green Anarchism, Anarcho feminism and others regularily talked about in the movement.

    Most people I’ve heard of who use the “Anarcho-capitalist” term to identify themselves actually are not anarchists in the slightest, though, but are rather Randians who want a way to make selfishness as an ethical position(err…sorry “objectivism”) seem more socially acceptable. To me this is definitely an issue of difference of kind, not of degree, but from what I’ve seen genuine market anarchists still see Randians as fellow travellers. To me, that’s downright dangerous, because not only are Randians a really good example of a political cult which fuels itself on reflexive anti-communism, but it’s all based on an ethical philosophy that is profoundly anti-social.

    When you get down to it most of the theory differences between market and anti-capitalist anarchists is basically semantics (different definitions are used for terms like “property” and “capital”). The real issue is tactics and I don’t think that’s one that’s so easily reconciled, as many market anarchists are visciously anti-union and anti-welfare – they actually support tearing down two things that keep those of us who aren’t rich from the streets. When you get down to it it’s the much older issue of a revolution from below, or above? The libertarian dream of the state dismantling itself is just as likely to result in tyranny as any other revolution from above in my opinion.

— 2013 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2013-08-14 – Karl Hess on anarchocapitalism:

    […] GT 2007-12-01: Benjamin Tucker on anarcho-capitalism […]

— 2014 —

  1. Christian Gruber

    Way late to this little party, but I really appreciate this analysis. It resonates with my own views (which fit sort of in a propertarian market-anarchism that I still consider left, but with very open minds to all sorts of modes of voluntary social organization). And it resonates with my view that social anarchists are fellow travelers, for the most part. Reading your own (RadGeek) information leads me to think that we’re very closely aligned in terms of the shape of a society we would want to build together, and that is definitely something I can appreciate. But while I find disagreement here and there with some social anarchist positions (as I do with some anarcho-capitalists positions, or at least their portrayals of them) I still feel like we share a critique of power and privilege which can lead to a society (or more properly, societies) which can prosper together, in liberty, with maximally valuable outcomes for the members of such.

    So thank you – not just for this perspective (which brings together some of my own thoughts into greater clarity) or the references, but the sense of community this afforded me.

— 2015 —

  1. Discussed at attackthesystem.com

    Benjamin Tucker on Anarcho-Capitalism « Attack the System:

    […] The following article was written by Charles Johnson and published on his Rad Geek People’s Daily, December 1, 2007. […]

— 2022 —

  1. Discussed at www.anarchistfederation.net

    Anarko Kapitalisme Menurut Benjamin Tucker – ? Anarchist Federation:

    […] “Benjamin Tucker on Anarcho-Capitalism” dan diterbitkan di Rad Geek People’s Daily, pada 1 Desember 2007. Teks ini diterbitkan ulang di C4SS lalu diterjemahkan ke dalam Bahasa Indonesia oleh Iman […]

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